Business

How mobile tech is flowering in the land of 'keepy-uppy'

Chinlone players in tournament Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Chinlone players must keep the rattan ball off the ground in acrobatic and stylish ways

U Myint Kyaw Thu says he wanted to make games since he was a five-year-old playing Nintendo.

But growing up in Burma, now Myanmar, there was no internet and precious few mobile phones.

So when he founded Total Gameplay Studio with his brother in 2005, he had to develop games for international buyers, sometimes living nocturnally to capitalise on Myanmar's limited electricity - the domestic market just wasn't developed enough.

But since the recent liberalisation of Myanmar's telecoms market, millions have embraced mobile in a land where SIM cards used to cost $1,000.

Now he can do what he always wanted to do from the start - develop games for mobile about his own culture.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The chinlone game - also known as caneball - is thought to be more than 1,500 years old

One enables players to guide a bicycle rickshaw driver through soaking-wet streets during Thingyan - Myanmar's New Year celebration; another involves playing chinlone - the country's traditional sport of highly stylised "keepy-uppy".

"When the government announced new telcos were coming, we believed there would be a lot of mobile users. I thought the Myanmar market would become mature enough to support the local game industry, so we decided to be part of it and try to promote it," he says.

Total Gameplay says it now has about 200,000 players on its platform.

'Massive demand'

Three years ago, less than 10% of Myanmar's population owned a phone, putting it slightly above Eritrea and North Korea. Now the figure is closer to 40%.

Connectivity is spreading like wildfire, opening up new opportunities for start-ups and established businesses alike.

This rapid change has been achieved by inviting foreign telecoms companies, such as Ooredoo and Telenor, to come in and challenge the state-owned incumbent's monopoly.

The sector has been a foreign investment success story, according to the government, and could generate hundreds of thousands of jobs in years to come.

In its June 2015 report, mobile operator Ericsson said it received five million new subscriptions in its first quarter, putting Myanmar's performance just behind that of China and India.

Image caption From his office overlooking Yangon's Mahabandoola Park, David Madden, founder of innovation lab Phandeeyar, sees "massive pent-up demand" in Myanmar

"Basically, as fast as these telcos can roll out towers and switch on locations, they're hitting capacity," says David Madden, the founder of Myanmar innovation lab and community tech hub, Phandeeyar.

"There's massive pent-up demand, and as soon as people get the opportunity to connect, they do."

This technological flowering is going hand-in-hand with the opening up of the country's political system - in just over a week its people head to the polls in an historic election.

'Opportunities everywhere'

Smartphones have dropped steeply in price - basic models can be bought for $20 (£13) - meaning that first-time buyers will often go straight to smart devices and leapfrog onto the mobile internet.

With around 30 million SIM cards now on the market - the population is about 54 million - Myanmar's new mobile users represent a vast audience hungry for data - one with unmet needs that entrepreneurs are eager to serve.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Even Yangon artists are leaping onto the burgeoning mobile internet

"One of the things that's really exciting about the Myanmar start-up scene is there's so much more work to be done," says Mr Madden.

"There are literally opportunities everywhere, and it's all happening at once."

Mobile mobility?

Ko Dana's year-old software company, Myantel, launched an Uber-inspired app in February.

Called HoHo-DeDe, the taxi app might seem a mismatch for Myanmar's commercial capital, Yangon, where nearly half the cars on the street seem to be cabs and flagging one down is easy.

But transportation is still a huge problem and getting around Yangon frustrates many, says Ko Dana. Cabs trawl for customers and add to the congestion - a search HoHo could help with, he believes.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Getty round busy Yangon can be frustrating, says Myantel's Ko Dana

The app, which links users to drivers and still allows for a bit of bargaining, also establishes accountability, as both driver and passenger information is available in case of legal issues.

Though Ko Dana says drivers who learned about HoHo got excited about it, educating them proved difficult at first. And getting the app onto phones - and then to work perfectly - has been tough for the company.

'Still not ready'

Indeed, plenty of challenges remain for the country's start-ups, despite the flowering of mobile.

While connectivity has improved somewhat, it's still far from perfect. Ko Dana says connection problems have led his firm's HoHo app to crash, while a complex driver verification system has slowed take-up. He is considering giving out customised smartphones to taxi drivers.

More than 2,000 people had signed up for the app, but for now, it's on hold, he says.

Image copyright Myantel
Image caption Myantel's Uber-style taxi app has suffered connection problems

"If the app was in another country, it would be easy. All those little things cause big problems."

Similarly, U Myint Kyaw Thu says that as mobile payment systems are still in their infancy, doing business is difficult for his company.

Total Gameplay makes money from ads and in-game purchases, and has teamed up with others - such as the state-owned telecoms incumbent Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) - to facilitate payments.

But he says: "The market is still not ready. We need to wait at least one more year before it develops and matures."

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption There are now 30 million SIM cards in Myanmar among a population of about 54 million

The problems have led Ko Dana to think he should have stayed studying in Australia for a little longer.

"Everyone expects a lot from the foreign companies, especially Telenor and Ooredoo. When we started, it was nowhere near our expectations."

Despite these challenges, the entrepreneur remains hopeful.

"I'm confident that [the technology] is going to get better, but as of right now it's not very much yet. Most professionals say we are progressing very fast, but since we have high expectations, we're thinking it's slow progress."

That said, it is amazing to think that not long ago, Myanmar had no internet at all.